Bacchus: The Orgiastic Ritual Game
Bacchus is a multiplayer dancing
game with a religious theme. The selling point is its ability
to evoke intense emotions.
Imagine if you will, a decrepit
theater filled with writhing, dancing people. The lights flare
and swoop in time and the people chant in unison. A massive screen
shows a mirror image of the hall like some surrealistic portal into
an alternate universe. Instead of blokes and lasses in street
clothes, the onscreen spirits are clad in ornate ritualistic
garb. The movements on each side of screen are eerily synchronized.
The pitch of the chant rises.
The screen zooms in on a
girl in the center of the room. The crowd, as one, turns and watches
her figure on the screen. She begins to dance. At
first her movement is controlled and intricate. The screen pulsates
and she yells to its beat. The room takes up her words and amplifies
them, giving them god-like resonance. Bass mixed with reverb mixed with
primal, guttural passion. Her dance becomes wild. The pace increases
and she begins to confess.
The theater reacts. Each
word she utters shimmers on screen, merging with ghostly photos from
her past. In a beat, the entire room witnesses her sorrow over the death
of her mother, her time alone in an empty apartment, and her
first kiss. An inhumanly beautiful electronic chorus rises, matches
and turns her words into a song. Her movements become a blur. Her glowing
eyes are ecstatic. At the peak, her spirit on the large
screen explodes in light and the girl collapses to the floor in fervent
The crowd goes wild.
The screen zooms out and the next god dancer is chosen.
Later, the girl writes
to her online friends that the night she danced was the single most
powerful spiritual and emotional experience in her entire life.
It was the night she was touched by a higher power while playing a video
Bouguereau - The Youth of Bacchus (1884)
The game Bacchus is a
thought experiment, not a real game. It exists merely to explore, in
one design, several effective, yet rarely-used techniques for inducing
emotion through gameplay. It happens to have a religious theme,
but I’m primarily interested in exploring how designed experiences
can yield intense player emotions.
The game designer’s palette
of emotion has traditionally been limited to boredom, frustration, and
triumphant mastery. There is very little published research on
how to evoke a broader range of emotions and designers have very few
practical or theoretical tools at their disposal in the quest to create
meaningful, emotional experiences for their players. Designers interested
in evoking emotion fall back on:
- Stealing techniques
from non-game media. “And then we show a movie of the faithful
heroine being stabbed by the evil villain!”
- Copious handwaving.
“See, this pink pulsating blob represents ‘Feelings’”, explains
the designer to the confused player.
The resulting experiences are
far more emotionally simplistic than we might dream of creating.
To expand beyond the present
constraints, I set forth a personal challenge. What if you wanted to
create a game that pushes the player through a sequence of emotions,
from joy to sorrow, to perhaps even religious ecstasy? What current
or future techniques would you use? Is it even possible for a game to
evoke a rich palette of emotions?
In order to build a game that
induces such a complex emotional spectrum, we need to dig into the fundamentals
of evoking emotions in games. It turns out that many folks in the scientific
community have been studying tangentially related problems for quite
What Is Covered In This Essay
This essay has five parts
- Two factor theory
of emotion: First, we’ll look at the psychology behind our emotions.
I’ll lean on this to explore four pragmatic techniques that are demonstrated
- Technique 1:
Tapping existing emotional memories.
- Technique 2:
Using relevant stimuli in order to evoke an emotional response.
- Technique 3:
Biofeedback for controlling physical state.
- Technique 4:
Social norm setting for seeding appropriate cognitive labels.
With each technique, we’ll
cover the theory, how you can put the theory to use, how technology
can help, and some of the limitations.